Heirs to the throne

Succession planning is not about identifying a single person but cultivating teams of people to lead.

During the wait for a birth announcement from the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital in London, television news anchors around the world filled hours of live broadcasts with trivia and commentary on the history and importance of royal births.

One of the more interesting bits of trivia was that, across centuries in British history, there was some worry that there would be a “Prince and the Pauper”-like switch of newborns, that some unscrupulous or desperate “commoner” would substitute his own child for the royal baby and the monarchy would be irreparably undermined. And so the British Home Secretary was obligated to be in the actual delivery room to witness the birth of the heir.

By the late 1940s, this fear had subsided, and Home Secretary Chuter Ede learned of Prince Charles’ birth by phone. I imagine Ede was grateful.

The contrast is striking between how carefully some institutions treat matters of succession and how casually others regard the same subjects (granted, few institutions have the kinds of blessings or bedevilments of the succession plan inherent in the hereditary monarchy). In recent years, an increasing number of Christian institutions are attending more carefully to these matters as leadership passes from one generation to the next.

Even so, many institutions (especially congregations) find themselves stymied by the prospect of leadership transitions. In some settings, it is denominational or organizational structure, custom or practice that complicates the ability to plan. In others, succession planning would seem to violate certain etiquette about respecting the ministry, service and tenure of an incumbent. In still more, such planning might feel premature and, therefore, unnecessary. Whatever the source of hesitation, many Christian institutions could be caught unprepared when a leadership transition arrives.

This is part of the reason why John Perkins’ insight in his conversation with Faith & Leadership is so important. Perkins says that real succession planning is not about the identification and development of a single, talented person (apologies to the monarchy) but, rather, the development of groups of people who can lead.

This idea should resonate well with senior leaders, institutions, and governing boards and bodies alike.

After all, this ongoing task -- cultivating the capacity of whole groups of persons within an institution -- is not a separate or discrete responsibility from the rest of what leaders do; rather, it is already central to helping an institution perform at its best.

By reframing it, though, Perkins underscores the importance of developing our people, and even the most reticent organization might find some permission to engage in succession planning if it looks more like the cultivation of teams rather the identification of individuals.

This will obviously not reduce all of the challenges involved in leadership transitions in today’s complex institutional climate. Yet, engaging in some form of succession planning and team development are ways of providing for institutional sustainability. They ensure continuity of mission and vision. So, call the Home Secretary in your institution, and tell her that there will be multiple possible heirs to the throne.